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Automating Network Administration, Part Two
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The first thing you have to do with your server is install the OS. Because I have more experience with Solaris than with anything else, and because I really love its install process, I am going to use that OS when I need an example. All of the principles in this article still apply to other Unixes, but your final solution will probably change -- most free OSes come with a lot more software than Solaris does, and it's often easier to add the missing software, but you may find it more difficult to remove installed software, and it may be nearly impossible to find a Jumpstart equivalent to automate the entire process. You should still be able to automate a significant amount of the install process, but you may not be able to achieve full automation.

Most OSes give you multiple configuration options during the installation process, including how to partition the filesystems, what software to install (usually in the form of software clusters and smaller software packages), and basic system configuration. How you are going to address all of these questions is part of your installation plan, but there are at least two other aspects of OS installation: what parts of the OS do you have to remove, and what configurations do you have to fix? I haven't yet seen an OS that allows you to install exactly what you need and configure it exactly as you like on the first pass, so I expect that you'll have to modify the OS once it's installed; I know you will for Solaris.

In the case of a Solaris install, we have the minor configuration details like host name and IP address, but we also have filesystem layout, which software cluster to install, and which additional software to install. As with most OSes, with Solaris it's easier to pick a software group with less software and then add the extra software later, rather than installing a bunch of software you know you won't need and then deleting that extra software later. For servers running Solaris, I always choose the smallest software cluster and install everything else I need individually. Because this is often around 40 packages, you will find it a serious pain if you decide not to automate this.

Our goal here is to end up with not a single piece of software that doesn't fit into our plan -- a process called OS minimization -- because a minimized OS has fewer potential security holes, less software to patch, and takes up less hard-drive space. To reach this goal, you will probably have to remove software installed in that basic set; I haven't yet used a server with PCMCIA slots, but support for it is part of the Core cluster on Solaris, it gets started by default, and it creates a world-writeable directory in /tmp owned by root. Yep, a prime candidate for removal from your server.

Once we have a plan for how we'll be laying out the filesystems (see my previous article for some pointers on filesystem layout), what OS group we'll install, what of that we'll remove, what other OS pieces we'll add, and how we're going to configure the OS itself (host name, IP address, etc.), it's time to automate all of it.

Fortunately, the automation portion of a Solaris install is relatively easy: Sun provides its Jumpstart tool as part of Solaris, is also (finally) providing the JASS toolkit to give you a leg up on securing your Solaris install, and even has a new book on Jumpstart. JASS provides just about all of the functionality of tools like titan, and it builds a decent foundation for all of the extra configuration you want do do with Jumpstart. I find it more difficult to use than it could be, and it doesn't really ship with much help outside of security, but it's a good tool and will save you lots of time.

The combination of Jumpstart and JASS will get your OS installed, configured, patched, and secured, but although they provide an example minimization script, you'll be basically on your own for minimizing most of your services. There are still some things you'll have to do yourself, such as installing Disksuite and mirroring your root disk (although see my Jumpstart page for a script that does this for you, and for some example minimization scripts), but mostly what's left now is to install the extra software and configure it.

Everything Else

If you're building a Web server, it's really tempting to install a compiler on it and just compile Apache and whatever else you need. I used to work with a guy who compiled Apache about twice a week, because he always found it easier to compile it on every machine than to build a package out of it and install just that package. This is what the Programming Perl book calls "false laziness," in that you are being lazy today but it will end up being more work for you in the end. You've just ruined any possibility of truly automating your install, and you have to perform more work per server than if you had packaged the software and installed the package on every server. Furthermore, you've not only installed software you don't really need on your server (the compiler), this software will foster your false laziness by allowing you to compile other software on your server, and having a compiler handy does make your server a bit more vulnerable, because crackers can compile necessary tools locally rather than having to download binaries.

It's probably enough to precompile everything, toss it into a tarball, and use a script to install it, but to make your systems truly manageable, you should turn all of your software into packages. It's not always a trivial process, but has some handy scripts and tutorials to help you turn your software into Solaris packages. If you just use gzip and tar to install your software, then you can't do things like query your OS to find out what software is installed and what version the software is. If all of the software is installed as a package, though, your OS keeps a record of what you have installed and what version is installed, which makes it significantly easier to automate upgrades and maintenance.

Even better, JASS comes with a script which already automates installing packages, so if you turn all of your software into packages, then you can just use that script to install your software and you're done.


This article is specifically targeted towards servers, but most of the points still apply to workstations; in fact, workstations should be much easier than servers, and you'll likely find that your workstations easily fit within any system for building servers.

Keep an eye my Jumpstart page for tools, tips, and tutorials to help you build your Solaris box right the first time.

If you've followed along and built a plan for installing all of your servers according to how this article lays it out, you now have an automated system which will do the following:

  • Lay out the filesystems.
  • Install a minimum OS.
  • Install additional necessary OS packages.
  • Minimize the OS by removing all unnecessary OS packages.
  • Patch the remaining OS.
  • Configure all server details.
  • Secure the entire OS.
  • Install all additional non-OS software.
  • Perform any other last-minute configurations.

I have had such a system in various states of functionality for about the last four years, and it has saved me tons of time, not just when building a system (I can usually build any server running any configured service in about two hours of clock time but only about five minutes of my time), but also when maintaining it. It's an honest pleasure to be able to explore a server and find nothing you don't expect, nothing you didn't plan, and nothing you don't understand, but it also makes firefighting, upgrading, patching, and daily maintenance easier.

Hopefully, this article will get you thinking about how you build your servers, and how you can automate and simplify that process while at the same time ending up with a more maintainable network. After all, that's what gets you home on time at the end of every day.

Luke A. Kanies is an independent consultant and researcher specializing in Unix automation and configuration management.

Previously in this series:

Automating Network Administration, Part One -- Any task that is carried out by a system administrator more than once is a candidate for being automated. Luke A. Kanies explains how important automation and planning are to a sysadmin.

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